Mother Russia Shines Upon the Ranks of the WTA

Sergey ZikovSenior Analyst IApril 14, 2009

In the rich and storied history of tennis, some traditions just seem to stand out; the all-white attire at Wimbledon, the walk through the hallway of Champions at Rod Laver Arena before entering the court, the razzle-dazzle of the US Open.

National programs have been linked, too; Indians and Australians dominating the field of doubles, the Chinese women's program in recent years, the Spanish men's program, and of course, the lack of a British Wimbledon champion for so many years.

Then there is Mother Russia, it's tricolor flag waving in the wind and "Gosudarstvenny Gimn Rossiyskoy Federatsii" playing along in the background.

A casual observer would look at the WTA rankings and see the initials "RUS" littered all over the Top Ten. There is new world No. 1 Dinara Safina. Then there is 2008 Olympic Gold medalist Elena Dementieva. You can also throw in players like Vera Zvonareva and Svetlana Kuznetsova, too.

Where on Earth did they all come from?

Do all these women just spring out of the ground at some high-end tennis club in Moscow?

For a nation that is celebrating its 130th anniversary of playing tennis, not so much. But if you are looking for an answer, this is no new phenomenon. In all honesty, tennis in Russia has been a popular sport for a very long time now. Let's go back in time a bit.

Alexander the Liberator was on the throne in Russia. The Tsar had been on the throne since 1855, Alexander II brought some radical changes to the Russian people. Possibly best known for his contributions in trying to develop all of Mother Russia's resources, he was also able to reach out to numerous other nations before his public assassination in 1881.

But during his time, he found the cultures of other nations to be greatly appealing while expressing a clear disinterest in the military. One man however, would spark not only his interest, but the future interest of an entire nation.

A Welsh man, Major Walter Wingfield, introduced his game of "Sphainstike", or Greek for "Ball Game" in Alexander's home town of St. Petersburg. Soon afterwards, tabloids were written in attempt to popularize the game, aided by the St. Petersburg Cricket Club.

Lawn tennis had been born in Russia.

After Alexander's death, the sport had no letdown whatsoever. Tsar Nicholas himself was an avid tennis player, who commonly wrote about it in his diary.

Entries like "I personally played seven sets today and sweated a great deal" or "I played tennis after breakfast until 5 o'clock today." dotted the book.

Russia held it's own championships in St. Petersburg during the early years of the 20th century, won by men like Mikail Sumarokov five straight years in a row. However, Sumarokov's accomplishments went under the radar in a sense, with the coming of the Great War. After he won his final championship in 1914, he would go off to war like many young Russians on the Eastern Front.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, many Soviets frowned upon tennis, calling it "high-class". But there were recollections of even Lenin enjoying tennis in his spare time.

The USSR soon fell into a Dark Age, so to speak, in both life and tennis. Public violence was everywhere as supreme commander Joseph Stalin took over in 1922. Tennis nearly disappeared from the Russian society, as it was forbidden by the Communists.

To say that hundreds of buildings, landmarks and homes were destroyed as a part of the Siege of Leningrad, that would be a major understatement. Demoralized and homeless, most Russians in 1942 had one goal - to avenge their losses and get their country back.

After the euphoric end to the Second World War, culminating with the sacking of Berlin, Russia breathed a sign of relief. After Stalin's death in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khruschev was a little more open-minded.

The tale has it, that during visit to London, Khruschev was asked by the British media why no Russian players competed at Wimbledon.

"What is Wimbledon?" he asked.

And then it started again.

A year later, Anna Dmitriyeva entered the Junior Wimbledon tournament and essentially started an avalanche in the process. Although she did not have very good results, she set the stone for new Russians to come forward.

It didn't take long for the Phoenix-like Russian program to rise again.

After semifinal appearances at the Australian Open and the French Open in 1971 and '72, Soviet Alex Metreveli reached the Gentlemen's Singles Final at Wimbledon. Despite losing in a hard-fought three sets to Czech Jan Kodes, the Georgian inspired the nation to do better.

A year later, Olga Morozova returned the favor, except she reached the finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, losing both to American great Chris Evert. She would also team up with Evert to win the French Open doubles title in 1974.

Almost as if they were in balance, the decline of the Soviet Union lead to more advancements in the world of tennis. More and more Russian born players were competing in major events and coming close to winning them.

In 1988, Natasha Zvereva reached the final of the French Open, losing to Steffi Graf 6-0, 6-0. Despite being demolished, the loss pushed her to new heights. She even demanded publicly to the Soviet government that she was allowed to keep her tournament winnings. She was the first major athlete of any kind, male or female, to demand a such thing.

Zvereva did not have immense success in the world of singles, but she won an incredible 18 Grand Slam women's doubles titles in the 1990s, mainly alongside American Gigi Fernandez.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 lead to many tremendous changes for Russia. President Boris Yeltsin not only brought about economic reform, but also brought a new attitude to Russian tennis.

Yeltsin himself was a major tennis advocate, much like the Tsars of old. He was never satisfied, and continued to drive tennis to unprecedented heights that nobody could have foreseen. Russia finally made it's breakthrough in 1996, however it was not on the women's side.

The Golden Boy of Sochi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, had finally broken the curse and won a Slam, by defeating German Michael Stich at the French Open.

"Now I have a chance to breath and I feel so relaxed that I could easily jump over the Great Wall of China!" proclaimed Kafelnikov to the Sevodnya newspaper. We feel you there, Yevgeny.

But at the time, Kafelnikov was not a favorite among the press due to his attitude, and was still shunned in favor of teen sensation Anna Kournikova

Alongside Yeltsin, Kournikova brought loads of attention to the sport. Yeltsin did his job by creating an incredibly positive and energetic around tennis, advertising the game to businessmen, doctors and all sorts of professions. Kournikova brought foreign media, as well as local.

After Yeltsin resigned in 1999, he became an even bigger fan of the game. The now 68-year-old had as much fire as the young players involved. He attended numerous Davis Cup matches as well as any Championship his players were involved in, jumping up and down in support.

Anastasia Myskina finally broke though on the women's side in 2004 to win the first-ever women's singles title for Russia, as she defeated fellow Russian Elena Dementieva for the French Open. By that time, there had become such a market for tennis players. 

The money was terrific for professionals. And even if players couldn't make it on the WTA or ATP tour, there was plenty of a market for players that would hit with rich club members across the country. 

Russians infiltrated many prestigious tennis academies across the globe in attempt to better themselves. Numerous Russian women have trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. 

Which leads all of this back to today, and the immense successes of Russian women. Young girls just believe that they can be great and push themselves to new levels. The support is there for everyone too, as tennis remains one of the most popular sports in the country today. 

While the men also choose to play football or hockey, the women flock to tennis in droves. As of today, there are 15 Russian women in the Top 100, and 84 women on tour in total with many more in the wings.

Russian women have also reached the finals in six of sixteen possible events in 2009. 

Mother Russia is truly a nourishing parent, but she has especially smiled on the WTA.   


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